Search the net for the “Top European travel destinations”, “Best places to visit in Europe” or even “Top European capital cities” and Oslo will not feature on any of those lists… So why the heck did I choose to spend another 3 days in one of the most expensive
countries cities in the world? How about because I’ve never been here before? Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure myself, but decided to go to see what all the non-fuss was about. Besides, you can take a really cool railway from Bergen to Oslo – supposedly one of the most scenic in the world!
The Bergen-Oslo railway
For only 99NOK, I was able to book myself on the train from Bergen to Oslo, a journey lasting around 6.5 hours. As noted by many travel writers and publications, this particular rail journey is supposedly one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, with Lonely Planet’s Tom Hall, concluding “The Bergen Line is a journey that will live long in my memory. If you haven’t done it you can’t say for sure that it’s not the world’s most beautiful train ride”.
I don’t care who you are, but that is a big statement to make! Anyway, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some of the photos I managed to take along the route. Bear in mind that I had to shoot from behind the train windows with a camera I dropped back in Bergen! Although I didn’t do it, the detour from Myrdal to Voss is touted as being the highlight of the railway, being the steepest section and providing some of the best views of the Sognefjord.
A tourist in Oslo
Oslo, like most cities with an established tourism base offers visitors the option to purchase an “Oslo Pass” which gives you free or discounted access to popular attractions such as museums, galleries etc as well as access to multiple modes of transportation as well without having to buy separate tickets. Such a pass can be an easy way of paying once for the ultimate convenience of skipping what could be lengthy queues and having to work out a city’s transportation system (some of you may say, “...but where’s the fun in that??“) but in a country that’s arguably the world’s most expensive, I was trying to be a frugal as possible.
With three days in Oslo and this in mind, I decided to purchase a 48hr pass for 340NOK (student discount). With this pass, I planned to get my money’s worth by visiting the Nobel Peace Center (90 NOK), taking the ferry to and from Dronningen and Bygdøynes, visiting the Viking Ship (60 NOK), Kon-Tiki (90 NOK), the Polar Ship Fram (80 NOK) and Norwegian Maritime Museums (80 NOK), then a train to and from the Holmenkollen Ski Jump (120 NOK), all in a single day! The following day, I was planning to perhaps visit City Hall
However, that evening, I accidentally left my pass (which was made out of paper with a user-specific QR code) in my pants as I put them through the wash… The result? The ingredients for paper mache.
*** Warning – a rant about me destroying my Oslo pass below. Click here to skip! ****
Now when you buy any form of concession pass, you need to make your purchase at the local Tourist Information Centre and. show some form of identification. When I made my purchase, I paid using my credit card which were registered. The pass is then ‘validated’ by the user by writing the start time and date in pen on the card. After my card went through the wash, you could still make out the start time and date, and I had a receipt to show that I purchased a 48hr pass, so I thought I would try my luck with the tourism office and see if they would give me another for my remaining day left (they actually state that they do not refund or exchange damaged or lost cards).
Unfortunately for me, my request was nicely and politely denied… Although the guy at the desk was convinced that my case was legitimate, he said he could not give me another pass because each one has to be ‘generated’ through the system and I would need to pay to receive a replacement.
This got me thinking… Whilst the destruction of my pass was clearly my own fault, could the inability of the tourism office to give out replacements for damaged passes be a result of this latest trend (the word trend has long been a trend itself…) of collecting data to analyse and improve their service? I won’t necessarily call it big data as that usually refers to an unstructured dataset, though the data collected here could definitely flow into a big data set. Hear me out.
Big Data seems to be one of those contemporary buzz words thrown around to describe the incredible mass of unstructured data (or many unlinked, structured data sets?) being generated each day around the world and the ability for people to probe such data to identify links, trends and correlations which they could exploit and gain benefit. By purchasing the Oslo Pass, the tourism office could tell my nationality and age. By knowing which language guidebook I needed, they knew my preferred language and by paying by credit card, they could possibly have access to my retail habits, where I have previously travelled, spending limit, income based on spending limit etc. By knowing my email address, they could quite possibly find my social media profiles, including any Tweets or posts to Facebook.
At each museum where I used my card, my unique QR code was scanned. This meant that they knew which types of museums I visited, when during the day I visited, approximately how long I spent in each museum and any purchases I made if any, including any of the optional activities I opted to do at each museum, outside of what was offered by the Oslo Pass.
The pass also offer a discounts and various bars, cafes and restaurants.
So what’s my point you ask? Well, with all this information, multiplied across thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of tourists who buy the pass when visiting Oslo, the toursim office can identify which attractions are popular amongst people who speak various languages and which age groups are the likely to attract and how much money they are likely to spend. For example, 87% of all English speaking males in the 20-25 age group who purchase the Oslo Pass visit the Nobel Prize museum and spend approximately 2hrs in a visit and make no purchases at the gift store, unless they were American (for example) of which 75% of Americans in this category are likely to purchase a post card there.
Using this information and depending on what the museum would want to achieve (do they want more older people to visit the museum or more females? Or do they want to sell more goods at their gift shop?) The museum can tailor what exhibitions they run, the design and marketing of their exhibits as well as the kind of gifts they stock to capture more of the market.
In terms of places to eat, if a particular cafe was offering 20% (as opposed to 10% offered by other venues) off with the showing of a valid Oslo Pass, yet the restaurant was a long way away from most of the other tourist attractions, yet 78% of all pass holders eat here, even though the Yelp or Trip Advisor rating of the restaurant is lower than other the restaurants offering a lower discount, they could conclude that a bigger discount does work towards attracting more customers regardless of the location or quality, especially for an expensive country like Norway.
The tourism office could use this data to convince more vendors to take up in the scheme, as they could not only show how much potential there is for attracting more business, but they could come into an agreement of sharing their consumer data set with the vendors in order for them to conduct their own analysis as part of the contract.
There are endless queries which could be run and any number of correlations which can be established (remember that correlation is not causation!) But ultimately, the quality of such queries relies heavily upon the quality and integrity of the raw data. As they say, rubbish in = rubbish out. So if the tourism office was unable to generate a replacement pass with the same QR code as my damaged one, I would be corrupting the data set as my activities across the two days would show up as two different people (albeit of the same age, nationality, language etc). It would also show that a person who bought a 48hr pass did not use it at all on the second day in one case and did not use it at all on the first day in the other case… It would also show that two people, of the same age, nationality, language etc had two completely different interests, as not once did they visit the same attractions…
In other words, if they had given my a replacement card and if they always give out replacement cards without discouraging people to do so (by having to pay full fees again), they would be introducing corrupt data into their system. Enough of these cases would mean that such data points would not be dismissed as statistical outliers, but incorporated into the big picture and affect any trends which are observed…
Maybe I was thinking too much into why I was refused a replacement card… Maybe I was just fuming at my silly mistake of not checking my pockets before putting my pants in the wash.. Either way, I’m somewhat convinced that I was ‘screwed over’ by the rigidity of maintaining integrity in Oslo tourism’s data set.
Okay, enough ranting, below is what I actually got up to whilst in Oslo.
Smack bang in the middle of Oslo is Akershus Fortress, a 13th Century Medieval castle built on the harbour to protect the city and the country of Norway. Due to it’s strategic location and Norway’s reliance on sea-trade during those times, it is said that whoever controlled the castle controlled the country.
It is no surprise then that the fortress became under siege many times throughout it’s 700 year history if you take into account the number of wars fought between the countries which form Scandinavia.
Entry to the Akershus Fortress compound is free and entry to the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum within the Fortress is also free. There are many entrances to the Fortress, with the main entrance being located here. Don’t be put off by the soldiers guarding this entrance – they will just watch as you enter the gates. Alternatively, you can enter through the various side gates around the Fortress walls, such as this one which I used.
Once inside, I made my way to the Visitors Centre to pick up a printed guide for the castle containing information correlating to various numbered points around the Fortress grounds.
For 70 NOK, you can also go on a self guided audio tour of the main castle within the Fortress, getting an idea of life in the castle during times when it housed the Royal Family, when it was used as a prison and today where it is used to host many state functions. The guide is well produced and worth your time if you have an hour to spare.
If you’re into military history, then the Norwegian Armed Forces museum (Forsvarsmuseet) is for you. Although the exhibitions are mostly in Norwegian, it is visual heavy with plenty of large scale photos and artefacts with some English notes making it a worthwhile visit. The museum covers the military history of Norway from the Middle Ages and Vikings right up to the present War on Terror in Afghanistan.
All in all, I spent around 3 hours walking around the Castle grounds, the Keep and the Museum. With it being conveniently located in the city, it’s a hard attraction to pass up on.
Lots of museums
Now if you read part of my rant above, I ended up using the Oslo Pass to take \the No.91 ferry from the Aker Brygge, within the Oslofjord to Dronningen. The ferry is called Bygdøyfergene, literally the boat to the museums and can be caught from Pier 3. From Dronningen, The Viking Ship Museum is around 5 minutes walk away and the Polar Ship Flam, Kontiki and Norwegian Maritime Museums are all nearby at the next ferry stop, Bygdøynes. The Oslo Pass allows free transport on this ferry as well as free entry to all of these museums. Note: This ferry only runs from April to October.
The Viking Ship and Maritime Museums are pretty self explanatory, although if I had to choose between the two I would choose the Viking Ship Museum simply because I was in Norway! Inside the Viking Ship Museum you will find 3 beautifully restored and somewhat preserved (read below) Viking Ships which have been recovered from burial sites in Norway. Like many historial empires, the Vikings buried their deceased noblemen complete with their ship, horses, carriages and weapons. Such burial grounds typically formed mounds in the ground and in the 20th Century, the three vessels on show in the museum were unearthed from the mud in which they were preserved and restored.
After being recovered from their ground, they were ‘somewhat preserved’ with the best methods of the day. This method, as explained in the museum was to immerse the artefacts in alum (aluminium potassium sulphate), which displaced the water contained in the wood. The alum would then dry, adding strength to the weak wood structure. This was seen as important as water typically became a catalyst for reactions with oxygen, bacteria and other decaying processes.
However, the long term effects of such a method was not fully known at the time and modern studies have shown that as a result of this preservation process, the ships and other artefacts preserved this way have been degrading over time. Thus much research is being carried out to find ways of reversing this slow yet measurable decay and developing new methods to further preserve the artefacts. (Here is an interesting journal article presentation on the conservation methods for the ships in the museum).
All in all, I’m a firm believer that you have to see at least one viking ship if you ever visit Scandinavia, so for me, this was it. You will find Viking Ship Museums in the other capital cities in Scandinavia and all will probably have similar displays, so I can’t promise that you will see anything ‘new’ if you have already been to a Viking Ship Museum before. However, if you have yet to visit one, the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo was interesting enough for me.
Being a huge maritime nation, I had huge expectations for the Maritime Museum. Out of all the museums in the area, the Maritime Museum was the largest with exhibits spanning across several floors. For me, the highlight was the brand new exhibition on the top floor which covered modern day logistics and merchant services, including a highly interactive shipping simulation game.
Probably the two most unique museums which I have visited in my travels so far have been the Polar Ship Fram Museum and the Kon-tiki Museum. The Polar Ship Fram Museum contains the Fram, a wooden polar exploration vessel which holds the record for the farthest north and farthest south travelled by any wooden vessel. It also has permanent exhibitions on the famous Norwegian explorers, Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen.
The longevity of the Fram during it’s service from 1893 to 1912 is a testament to Norwegian ship-building know how. Where in the past, wooden vessels have been crushed by freezing seas, the Fram’s unique hull design allowed it to ‘float on ice’ instead. This was to allow the Fram to freeze in the Arctic Ice Sheet and float over the North Pole. It also was the vessel used by Roald Amundsen in his successful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1910-1912.
Whilst the museum also screens a film covering the history of the ship, the fire alarm sounded during my visit and I had to evacuate from the museum, running out of time later on in the day to return as see it.
The Kon-tiki Museum is not named after the infamous bus tours of Europe, but rather the raft called the Kon-tiki which was constructed by Thor Heyerdahl to prove the plausibility of South American migration into Polynesia prior to Christopher Columbus.
This raft was constructed in Peru out of balsa wood, using methods and materials available in the period and the voyage was successfully completed in 1947, lasting 101 days. At the time, there was no evidence that people from South America ever completed the journey, however in 2011, a genetic study of the inhabitants of Easter Island concluded that the inhabitants do have some South American DNA.
A second vessel in the museum named Ra II is a vessel constructed out of reeds and was built by Thor in 1969 to demonstrate that a trans-Atlantic journey was possible in ancient times. Referencing inscriptions of reed-vessels from ancient Egyptian burial sites, he constructed the vessel and successfully completed the journey in his second attempt in 1970 in 57 days. (the first attempt, in Ra I had to be abandoned after the boat fell apart a week away from finishing due to construction defects!).
I honestly had no idea what this museum was about, but after reading the description of the museum, it was a must see for me. Just reading the story covering the build up and attempts was simply amazing.
Out of all the museums in this part of Oslo, if I had to choose one to visit it would be the Kontiki Museum.
Catching the ferry back to Aker Brygge, I then used my Oslo Pass to take the train from the city centre to the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, located approximately 15km inland. Viewable from the city as a shining stainless steel structure on the hills, the area was used as a ski jump since 1892 being progressively developed from a pile of snow reinforced with straw, to a pile of wood, to a pile of bricks (did these guys read the Three Little Pigs?) to finally the concrete and stainless steel structure that you see today which was completed in 2009.
Alongside the development of the ramp was the development of ski equipment to fly faster and jump further. This is clearly detailed in the museum at the Ski Jump, with skis starting from pieces of wood, to aluminium, to the composite structures that they now are. Also in the museum is an exhibit of the Norwegian Royal Family and their history with skiing. To me, the most interesting story was of King Olaf V who, in the Energy Crisis of 1973 hopped on the public transport system in his tracksuit to make his way to the ski jump for some skiing of his own, as the use of cars were banned on weekends.
The highlight of this visit was of course, taking the cable lift to the top of the jump and getting a feel for what it’s like to do something, in my mind, absolutely ridiculous and launch yourself down the hill.
If you walk along the waterfront of Oslo, you would be hard pressed to miss newly developed area of Aker Brygge. If you are familiar with Sydney, it can be likened to the the section of Circular Quay stretching out towards the Sydney Opera House, although slightly more company. That being said, the selection of cafes, retail shops, restaurants and areas to sit or lie to relax are plentiful. During my visit, the weather in Oslo was superb with temperatures in the mid-20’s and plenty of sunshine, making Aker Brygge the perfect place to hang out.
In close proximity to the area is the Nobel Peace Prize Centre and the Oslo City Hall. Out of all the Nobel Prizes handed out every year, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in a ceremony carried out at Oslo City Hall, with the prizes for Literature, Physics, Chemistry and Physiology being awarded in the Old Town of Stockholm.
During my visit there, there was an exhibition titled “Be Democracy” on the effects of social media in creating democracy on the ground floor and an exhibit on the second floor covering the mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.
An artificial beach in Oslo
One of the newest structures in Oslo is the Oslo Opera House – a stunningly white building on the water front just down from Oslo Central Station.
This building is somewhat unique in that the roof top also functions as a public hang out space and a lookout point for the rest of the city. It also slopes down into the water and to me, looked like a bit of an artificial beach. If you want to get a tan in Oslo, pack a picnic mat and come here on a sunny day. You will be bombarded with photons as the sunlight reflects off the shining white marble and glass exterior of the building.
Around the city
Oslo is a very company city and if you have a day, you could easily cover most of it, from Oslo Central right up to a rather nice park in the North West. As I had a late afternoon flight from Oslo to Stockholm, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Park in the morning, as well as catch the Changing of Guards ceremony at the Royal Palace, which occurs at 1:30pm daily. If you want to simply relax, the Vigeland Installation within Frogner Park is the place to go. Be prepared to see quite possibly the largest collection of nude poses in the world as you walk in the largest park in Oslo. This installation also happens to be Norway’s most visited tourist attraction!
Now some of you may ask about the cost of food in Oslo. Like the rest of Norway, it’s on the high side, so for me, I usually prepared my own breakfast and purchased my lunches from the many supermarkets and bakeries around the city. Eating out however, if you choose the right place is not too bad, with a good sized dinner available for around $30.00 AUD, which is not an usual price to pay in Australia.
I can see why Oslo does not feature on any of the ‘must go to’ tourist lists published on the net. I mean, it’s small (that isn’t necessarily a bad thing), it doesn’t have that much character to it, it’s not necessarily famous for it’s nightlife, it’s relatively expensive and the museums here are quite similar to what’s available across all of Scandinavia, if not in other parts of Norway.
However, if you want to visit a capital city to relax and chill out (or if you want to catch the Rolling Stones in concert; they resumed their worldwide tour in Oslo, after the suicide of Mick Jagger’s partner earlier in the year) and learn a bit of Norwegian history, this is the obvious place to do so. However, unless you like visiting museums (more specifically, nautically-themed museums), you may want to give it a skip, or perhaps only spend a day or two here. Three days was definitely enough for me.